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March 17, 2018

Growing up in Louisa –Big Freeze!

 Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn

I’ve noticed that our local trees think it must be nearing spring. The pear trees, the cherry trees, forsythia and daffodils are doing all they can to burst into majestic bloom. The days are getting longer but the long-awaited spring has failed to arrive. Like waiting for a rarely late train, we anticipate a flowery Easter and a switch to thoughts of spring training. But wait!

The mid to upper Atlantic coast has just ‘weathered’ their 3rd Nor’easter. Now I’m told another one will form south of Virginia and move up the coast with yet more snow! We are well past ground-hog day so what happened here? Global warming? Huh, more like another ‘ice age.’ Maybe like the giant woolly mammoth, we’ll freeze to be found by some explorer centuries from now. I guess that’s one way of getting famous, but I don’t much like the role but we don’t even get to vote. Even so, maybe some far-off country would interfere and we’d lose either way. Airports will lock up and the whole nation will feel the effects to the national economy.     

 gas stove gas stove When I was growing up in that iconic little town, the house I lived in had no insulation. Maybe that was because we hadn’t heard about it and the house construction easily predated that practice. I know folks who pasted newspapers on the walls to knock down the wind. We had never seen storm windows and real insulation. Therefore, winters took it out on us. Winter meant little personal comfort, especially for cold-natured fellows like me. I remember crowding with others in hope of catching a bit of heat from a small gas stove that was installed in a fireplace in my living room. Each room had a gas hearth heater, but none of them were much help. They simply just never heated the whole room. A person standing with their back in front of the stove could get temporary relief from the cold if only on one side at a time. I remember turning like a pig on a spit to assure the front got its’ fair share. That side of my body got very hot, but I worried about the safety of the gas fumes.

I remember head-aches from the fumes. There were also regular warnings of the dangers of having a robe catch fire if we backed a little too close. Every winter we heard of stories of local ladies who died from severe burns when their nightgowns ignited. Newer fabrics finally underwent some chemical treatments to make them ‘fire resistant,’ and the newer synthetic materials tended to melt if gotten hot. Those still burned the skin. People who had working fireplaces ran a greater risk of fire. So whether gas, wood or coal, fires were necessary to survive, but potentially a source of much sorrow. Only a very few had ‘space heaters,’ or floor furnaces that had large grates usually in a central hallway. Almost no one had ‘forced air,’ like we have today.

I remember a dairy farmer that had natural gas on his property. The gas company ran underground lines but allowed him to tie into the line without charge. I’m sure he was paid for the product, but free heat was wonderful when I visited. He had a floor furnace in his home, but also a heater in his workshop, the main barn, the ‘milk room’ and the parlor. The cows found themselves listening to classical music in a warm parlor and buckets of feed while they were being milked. Life was good for them, I’d think.

jack frostjack frost I clearly remember seeing icy designs on our living room windows. Mom told me it was the work of Jack Frost. He was good with his designs. Jack would paint a new picture again the next evening. . Sometimes, no amount of sun would help because the wind would continue to whip arctic air against the house. I recall curtains standing out as the wind pushed the cold into the room. Even to have had rolls of plastic in those days would have helped, but I think the product was only becoming available. We didn’t have any.

Our house didn’t have gutters, so rain came off the metal roof and created a ‘drip line’ in the soil around the foundations. In fact, small gravel tracks existed where one there may have been soil. My point is that during the winter it was very common to have rolls of ice-sickles hanging along the roof’s edge. I used to try and find the longest ones, or the widest chunks, but the real trick was to watch them fall like some soldiers spear. Normally, these shattered when they hit the ground, but a few would spike in an upright position. Ice-sickles also lined the porch roof, so I could reach these. As a dumb kid I’d break one off and use it as a sucker, much the same as an unflavored Popsicle. I know that wasn’t necessarily the cleanest thing to do, but ‘hey,’ I was just a kid.

I remember spending the night with a classmate who lived at Fallsburg. I didn’t know until I got there that he lived in a real log cabin in the woods. We fished that night, catching mostly water-dogs, but enough perch for breakfast. When we crawled into the shared bed, I found it heavy with quilts. There was to be very little tossing and turning that night. At daybreak my friend shook me and said he’d build a fire and cook breakfast. I could stay in bed until he got the cabin warm. The single room wasn’t that big, so the ‘pot-belly’ stove did the trick. There was a layer of snow on the top quilt that had come through the chinking. He told me it was a normal occurrence and I should not worry. That advice became useful many times in my life when things went south, but would work out. I was a bit ashamed when I realized that two or three generations back, everyone in Kentucky lived in log cabins. Daniel Boone and Abe Lincoln are two that come to mind.

Back then the only solution was to dress warmly. We wore long johns, layers of sweaters and even coats and wrapped in a blanket. We had those granny-made quilts and Afghans. Granny always wore a shawl, but I wore everything I could find and cuddled in a warm spot usually in a corner. It was a good thing if you had a buddy to share the warmth. The bed coverings grew heavy at night so it was hard to get up for nature’s calls. Those were cold days, for sure. I remember a few times when I had to go outside and actually found it was warmer outside than inside. What a discouragement. It would be many years later when I looked back and understood the name of a famous rock band, ‘Three Dog Night.’

The weather gave me excuse to visit friends and perhaps to stay a little longer. I was always friendly in those cold days. I also remember going to school, even if it was officially closed, because the classrooms were warm. I enjoyed sitting and talking with friends when school work was not required. I practiced with band instruments and actually studied a few times. Then it was time to go back into the cold.

ice fishing ice fishing  For the one winter I lived in Detroit I got to see people going ice fishing. They would put up their sheds out on the ice, usually on a lake, and could actually drive their car out to the shed. The younger kids would drive out and spin in circles, having fun. I know a few that went into the water when they ventured too far. I guess some fine old cars are laying on the bottom of some of those northern lakes.

It’s times like these that I have dreams of revisiting the Caribbean. Those tropical breezes, the green vegetation, and the warm sun hitting the beaches are the kinds of cool I like. Meanwhile, I think a cup of steaming coffee might just the take the edge off the chill. Be grateful for today’s advances, my friends, and stay warm! This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Comments  

+1 #1 Bernard 2018-03-19 14:22
Good article Mike, yep I too remember the days of no insulation in walls, no floor furnace, just a fire place in the room. Living in WV in the early to upper 30's we had the old gas stoves & fireplaces. In Ohio (early 40's) we had a coal fired furnace, then to Paintsville early 40's to mid 40's, we had gas heat. When we moved to Louisa, the house was newly constructed was insulated but also had fire places in it and a big floor furnace. I too remember going to a friends house to stay all night, his bedroom was upstairs(loft) and was like being in an iceberg, cover so heavy you couldn't move. But that was back in the day, a healthy experience that made us better folks & understanding some of our friends even better. Again thanks for the memories, youy're doing great dear friend.
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